Malaysia’s general election: A time of gifts

The benefits of incumbency versus the lure of the unknown
The Economist
Apr 13th 2013 | SINGAPORE |From the print edition

SINCE Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957, the main question answered by general elections has been the size of the government’s majority. The poll that the election commission this week announced would be held on May 5th, is the first the government faces a real possibility of losing. Even if it does not—and the odds must still be in its favour—the election is likely to have a profound impact on Malaysian politics.

The ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, is dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), whose leader, Najib Razak, is prime minister. He has never led the party through an election, having taken over in 2009 after the humiliation of his predecessor, Abdullah Badawi, in the election the previous year. For the first time, Barisan lost the two-thirds parliamentary majority that enabled it to change the constitution. Ever since, the opposition Pakatan Rakyat, a three-party alliance, has sniffed power. Its most prominent figure, Anwar Ibrahim, was once in line to lead UMNO.

Helped by a strong economy, Mr Najib has been doling out goodies: cash handouts for poorer families; pay rises for civil servants; and promises of affordable housing and new highways. A lot is at stake: simultaneous assembly elections will be held in 12 of the 13 states. In 2008, five elected opposition administrations. More largesse is promised in Barisan’s manifesto. Since its own is equally open-handed, Pakatan accuses its opponents of plagiarism.

The shape of the constituencies gives greater weight to more conservative, pro-government voters in the countryside who are predominantly Malay. To gain a parliamentary majority, the opposition would need to win considerably more than half the popular vote. Accusations of gerrymandering and rigged voter lists are common. But both Mr Najib and Mr Anwar have promised to honour the result.

Pakatan complains Barisan is abusing the perks of office to help its campaign. It is true it has been in power so long that the dividing line between party and government has become blurred. In fact Pakatan’s whole campaign is an onslaught on UMNO for its corruption, which is exacerbated by affirmative-action policies to benefit the Malays and other “indigenous” groups over the Chinese minority (25% of the population) and ethnic Indians (8%). These policies have been debased into vehicles for patronage and cronyism. Mr Najib has chipped away at some Malay privileges, but the strength of UMNO’s right wing has stopped him abolishing them altogether.

Barisan includes ethnic-Indian and Chinese parties, but wracked by scandals, they seem likely to do badly. Pakatan allies Mr Anwar’s multiracial party with a Malay Islamic party and one dominated by Chinese. Whatever the outcome of the election, Barisan’s claim that it represents all of Malaysia’s ethnic groups may become hard to sustain.

If Mr Najib scrapes home, he could still face a challenge from within UMNO. Its right wing would want him out. As for Mr Anwar, he has said that defeat would mark the end of his political career. A controversial but charismatic figure, he has managed to keep his improbable alliance together, but has no obvious successor.

  1. #1 by yhsiew on Sunday, 14 April 2013 - 11:00 am

    We do not want leaders who only know how to dole out cash but leaders who are capable of solving the country’s ills.

  2. #2 by PR123 on Sunday, 14 April 2013 - 11:42 am

    Strong condemnation for leaders who are corrupted to the core and engaged in bribing the voters for votes. They are digging into the nation’s coffer and misusing the tax payer’s money for political gain. Voters have to send a strong signal to these parasites by voting them out.

  3. #3 by chengho on Sunday, 14 April 2013 - 1:01 pm

    BN to rule again ; mostly young leader for current generation
    NO 72+ for BN candidates eh

  4. #4 by hiro on Sunday, 14 April 2013 - 5:05 pm

    The Economist could use a lot more analysis. If there is no obvious successor in Pakatan, it’s worse in BN. No one will accept Muhyddin and his ultra-right wing Malay first position and his dismal failure as Education Minister, nor Mukhriz who may speak softer but has the same constraints as his father – another ultra rightist. Hishammuddin is history. No one will accept him as the Prime Minister for his obvious incompetence as Home Minister.

    There is no obvious successor because the Malaysian eyes are so narrow that we’re only looking at Malays. Isn’t it time after 55 years to think a little bit out of the box? Let’s not think Chinese as PM, because there’s just too much resistance from ultra-right wing… but what about an Indian, or a mixed race?

    There is no shortage of successor – they can be anyone from Sivarasa, Gobind, Guan Eng, Chin Tong, Tony, Husam, Mat Sabu etc. (just saying). The successor is the one who can win the confidence of all MP elects from Pakatan in future elections. It’s what they’ve done, and what they continue to do, that will be the yardstick of their qualification. No one in BN can withstand this kind of scrutiny, not even people like Saifuddin, Gan Sieu Ping or Baljit Singh, because even if they speak moderately, they are still confined by the party culture which is essentially UMNO culture of corruption, cronyism and gross abuse of power. If they have really pressed those issues, they would have been sacked by now.

  5. #5 by chengho on Sunday, 14 April 2013 - 9:59 pm

    majority Rule looking beyond 10 yrs from now , considering at population growth , demographic analysis and soon mandatory to vote for 21 yrs old , be real guy , are u dreaming

  6. #6 by Noble House on Monday, 15 April 2013 - 2:58 am

    Sometimes the majority only means that all the fools are on the same side. What matters is the quality, NOT the quantity!

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